The Debate over Corporate Social Responsibility

By Steve May; George Cheney et al. | Go to book overview

14

How to Read Milton Friedman
Corporate Social Responsibility and Today's Capitalisms

JAMES ARNT AUNE

[I]f the lion had a consciousness, his rage at the antelope
he wants to eat would be ideology… .

Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics

Scholars of rhetoric and organizational communication (Aune, 2001; Cheney, Christensen, Conrad, & Lair, 2004) have drawn our attention to the role of communication in constituting a range of economic discourses that enable or constrain organizational actions. The dominant economic discourse in Western democracies since the mid-1970s emphasizes the power of unregulated markets to deliver prosperity. Free market economists (in Chicago School, Austrian, and other varieties) are distinguished by their use of what Kenneth Burke (1969a) calls a “metonymic” reduction of human motivation to rational cost– benefit calculation of the likelihood of a “narrowly defined economic well-being” (J. Buchanan, 1984, p. 13).1 As George Stigler (1975) wrote, “There is, in fact, only one theory of human behavior, and that is the utility-maximizing theory” (p. 140). This metonymic reduction of the scope of human action paradoxically relies on two noneconomic forms of utility: the aesthetic and cognitive appeal of parsimonious explanations of human behavior, and the psychological need to appear “realistic”— a mature, nonromantic observer of the human condition (Aune, 2001, pp. 38–56).

Rhetorical strategies—grounded in the fundamental nature of human beings as symbol-using animals (Burke, 1968)—thus precede and constitute the rational calculation beloved by neoliberal economists. As the prominent labor historian William H. Sewell, Jr. (1993) wrote, neoliberal economists' emphasis on rational choice ignores two other important motivating factors in human life: meaning (determined by culture) and power (determined by politics). Neoliberal economists foreground scarcity as an explanation of human action and neglect the role of cultural meanings and political power in shaping scarcity itself. For example, the ratio of executive salaries to average worker salaries is dramatically higher in the United States than in Japan or Western Europe. Neoliberal economists would contend that the executives are being paid their market value, and yet market value alone cannot explain the extreme disparity. Something else must be going on—a cultural shift in how work is valued in the United States. The net effect of foregrounding scarcity and rational choice alone is to close off inquiry into meaning and power—a rhetorical move that masks the existence of unjust power relations.

It is important to look carefully at the unexamined assumptions and rhetorical strategies of neoliberal economics in order to improve public discourse about political economy in general and about corporate social responsibility (CSR) in particular. The classic statement of conservative political economists' rejection of CSR is Milton Friedman's 1970 essay “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits.”2 Friedman's position has become even more influential after the decline of social democracy and the Keynesian consensus among Western industrial

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